A tribute to the resilience of popular taste

The best news usually comes in the smallest typefaces. So one had to peer at the papers hard last week to learn that the Italian director Roberto Benigni's sharp comedy about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful, was the most profitable film in America last year (the most profitable, note - not the highest earning, a crude yardstick that measures little more than marketing musclepower). Life is Beautiful was nowhere near king of the world in the gross sense - Titanic took a bloated $1.83bn. But according to the figures in Variety magazine Benigni's sweet slice of life-and-death raked in $140m at the box office, representing a handsome 15-fold return on its original pounds 9m budget.

This is cheering news to anyone who likes to see big guns spiked once in a while. After the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty (the most profitable piece of celluloid in history, having made $205m on an outlay of just $3.5m) it confirms that size, while it may matter, isn't everything. It is not as if all these cheap propositions are works of art - far from it. But it is telling that seven of the 10 (Life is Beautiful, Pi, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Everest, Sliding Doors, Smoke Signals and Spice World) cost less than $10m - roughly the price of the propeller screws in Titanic, or the tidal wave in Prince of Egypt. Goliath - meet David.

On one level it makes perfect sense. The two most expensive commodities in the cinema are stars and special effects, and these, more often than not, are exactly the things that work against the success (speaking artistically - irrelevant, I know) of the film itself. A $100m purse virtually guarantees (unless you are Steven Spielberg) that there will be too many cooks. So if capitalism worked in an unmysterious way, Hollywood would respond to this fairly solid trend by investing in many modest projects. These, after all, are the potential goldmines.

Naturally, it is not that simple. In the winner-takes-all, monopolistic financial structure that controls film distribution, the market is weighted in favour of the producer, not the consumer (the audience). Hollywood is almost bound to persist in concentrating its fire on big-budget operations. Mere profitability is not, in the end, as important as sheer cash flow. A high return on investment is less exciting than simple industrial clout. After all, the studios have to fund what they call "high overheads", a neutral-sounding term for whopping salaries.

As it happens, a similar trend has been stalking our bookshops in the last few years. Many of the most striking commercial successes - Birdsong, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Fever Pitch, A Brief History of Time, The Beach, Longitude - have been the literary equivalent of low-budget movies. Not one of these books was captured in a frenzied public auction; the authors were not stars; none provoked splashy headlines slavering over the advances they had commanded. The books didn't even win prizes. They were simply nudged up the bestseller list by word of mouth. Theirs was no assault on the summit, but a stroll that climbed over the gates and carried on up.

Perhaps this is no more - nor less - than a tribute to the resilience of popular taste, which insists on taking what it wants even when deafened by noisy propaganda for rival attractions. But it might again be a sign that the routine economics of literature are loaded. The books that command the most attention are often non-books: ghosted biographies or sensational kiss 'n' tell sagas (or perhaps we should call them kiss and sell). These high-profile works - what we might call the hypocracy - are not always built to last, but they have enough celebrity news value to clean up in newspaper serialisations. Germaine Greer and Monica Lewinsky, to cite two authors of the moment, might not seem to have much in common, but in this respect they are both - pardon the phrase - cash cows. It's only a guess, but Greer was probably paid a hundred times more for her new book than for The Female Eunuch - a classic that came from nowhere.

There is no need to find this vexing. In Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift the narrator, Charlie Citrine, responds to the wealth that showers on him by apologising for it. All this money is not his doing, he insists: "capitalism made it, for dark comic reasons of its own". Raymond Carver said much the same when he started to win prizes and grants. "The wheel has stopped on my number," he would say. "Don't tell anyone." Fame and fortune land on the deserving and the undeserving alike. And posterity isn't bothered: it knows that it will all come out in the wash in the end. But that doesn't mean we can't raise a glass when the little guy makes good. Life is beautiful. So is small.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas